This week President Trump, the country’s thin-skinned media critic in chief, took his “fake news” bashing to an outrageous and ominous new level.
Enraged by an NBC News report that that he had expressed a desire for a "tenfold" increase in nuclear arms during a meeting with national security advisors, Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"
That evening, he returned to the subject in another tweet: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
This from a man who regularly spreads distortions, rumors and out-and-out falsehoods from the world’s most powerful bully pulpit.
Not for the first time, Trump was confused about how his own government works. Television networks aren’t licensed by the Federal Communications Commission; individual stations are, including 28 stations owned by Comcast, the parent company of NBC. And under federal law and the 1st Amendment, those local stations can’t lose their licenses unless they run seriously afoul of the commission’s rules — none of which deal with the quality or even the fairness of a station’s programming.
Still, calling for a news organization to be suppressed because you don’t like what it broadcasts is something we expect from foreign strongmen, not the president of the United States. As Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted in an interview with the New York Times, such authoritarian bastions as Russia, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all determine the fate of news outlets’ licenses based on the content of their coverage.
And while Trump may not be able to dictate policy to the FCC, his assertion that “licenses must be challenged” could incite his supporters to contest license renewals at stations not considered sufficiently pro-Trump in their news coverage.
Trump also complained Wednesday that “it is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.” Perhaps the president should look into why the freedom enjoyed by the American press has made it the envy of the world.
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